Archive for Berlin museums

Venetian Red in Berlin: Pergamon—The Story That Wasn’t

Posted in Liz Hager, Sculpture, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Temporarily Closed (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

The sign that greeted me outside the Pergamon Museum blared its message in hot-pink, as if there were a chance that one otherwise might fail to digest the supremely-disappointing news. “Vorübergehend geschlossen.” To non-native speakers this phrase, like many in the German language, sounds oppressively final. A death-knell was ringing in my ears.  Pergamon was perhaps the art reason for my trip to Berlin. The cheery English translation—”temporarily closed—offered no solace.

Since wandering all over the hilltop site of ancient Pergamon last October, I had been dreaming about the day when I could actually see the Great Altar of Pergamon in all its marmoreal grandeur. Widely considered to be the finest intact altar of the Greek Hellenistic period, since its discovery, the Altar has resided in its eponymous Berlin museum.

Pergamon site itself is worth the visit—though located on a somewhat inhospitable promontory about 10 miles inland from the Aegean,  it boasts a beyond-dramatic view to the Turkish city of Bergama in the valley below. However, one feels alternately cheated and sad that just about everything in the city, except for the remains of a few of the acropolis buildings, has been stripped away long ago. The site of the altar, which was orginally built in the 2nd c. BCE on an outcropping below the acropolis, is now marked by ruins (below).  The dusty hillside, the sorry remains of the grand altar, and accompanying trees only heightened the already necropolitan air of the whole site.

Pergamon—Site of the Empty Altar (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Nineteen century Europeans were obsessed with ancient and exotic cultures. In the accepted practices of the day, archeologists “liberated” thousands of artifacts from sites, and weren’t always too careful about how they did it. In particularly friezes and wall paintings were often removed using methods that disregarded the condition of what would remained. One likes to think that this was all in the name of scholarly study, but regrettably a lot of it was also for fame and fortune, both individual and national. (See Swimmers in the Desert and On the Trail of Alexander.) The Germans were no exception. Their particular interest lay in ancient Greece and her sphere of influence.

In 1878 three men—Carl Humann, Alexander Conze and Wilhelm Dörpfeld—began to excavate Pergamon. Carl Humann (1839-1896), leader of the group, was a self-educated archaeologist. An innkeeper’s son, he studied engineering until a diagnosis of tuberculosis necessitated a move to a southern European climate.   He worked as a surveyor in Turkey on railway and road construction departments.  There, Humann gained a personal familiarity with the classical-era ruins. The same year he started at Pergamon, Humann was named foreign director of Royal Museum in Berlin, responsible for all Prussian archaeological expeditions in the Near East.  He continued at the Pergamon site until 1886.   After Pegamon he went on to excavate Tralles, Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, Priene, and Ephesus. At his death in 1896 Humann was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Smyrna, but fittingly his remains were re-interred at Pergamon in 1967.

Beyond Pergamon, Dörpfeld directed much of his energy toward proving that Homer’s Odyssey was based upon real places.  He would became famous for his specific method of dating archeological sites based on the type of building materials found in the strata in which objects were found. A young Heinrich Schliemann convinced Dörpfeld to assist him with the excavation of Troy in 1882.

Like a good citizen, Humann shipped the altar and other items back to the Museum, where from 1901 to 1909, a small building on the site of the current Museum accommodated the important excavation finds of the Berlin Museums. As the collections grew, the building required enlargement; the current structure, though started in 1910, was finished in 1930.

After WW2, the frieze reliefs from the altar were relocated to the Hermitage Museum, ostensibly as a compensation for damage inflicted by the German invaders on Soviet museums. At the behest of Nikita Khrushchev, the frieze reliefs were returned to the Pergamon Museum (at that time under East German jurisdiction) in 1956.

Pergamon—Remains of the Acropolis (photo ©2007 Liz Hager)

In its heyday Pergamon must have been spectacular site to behold. Considered in some ancient circles as a Wonder of the World, in addition to its temples, the city was reputed to have had a library bested only by the one in Alexandria.

A full conception of the glory of Pergamon would have to wait until another day. I reminded myself that the setback was only “vorübergehend,” which sounded a whole lot less final without the “geschlossen.

Wider Connections

Germany Stole Pergamon —interesting tidbits about the Pergamon theft of the sort that are rocking the world of antiquities.

Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970

Telephos Frieze from Pergamon

Venetian Red in Berlin: To the Expressionists’ House We Go

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Friz Bleyl, Winter, 1905
Woodcut, 17 x 9.9 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

At the end of a tranquil cul-de-sac on the woodsy fringe of Berlin’s suburban Dahlem district sits Das Brücke Museum, an unassuming, low-slung modernist structure, in which much of the work of the German Expressionists resides. The Museum boasts a collection of more than 400 paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of prints.  One of the benefits of having a body of work this large and varied under one roof is the clarity of perspective it affords relative to the influence of German Expressionists on later movements, particularly the American Abstract Expressionists. What a wonderful paradox that a museum that houses once-radical art is situated in this rather conventional location; in a world in which most museums of modern art are sited in downtown locations, this suburban location is actually anti-conventional.

The first part of the 20th century was characterized by the ascendency of German-speaking artists.  After centuries of French domination of the art world, members of the Wiener Secession, Das Brücke, and later Der Blaue Reiter stepped into the spotlight, rebelling against Impressionism and pushing artistic vocabulary toward the abstract.  Because the founders of Das Brücke—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl—were studying at the technical university in Dresden,  the group originally took their aesthetic cues from the Dresden-based expression of the Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau), which staked its artistic legacy on highly-stylized curvilinear forms, mostly floral in origin.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Parterre, Akrobatin, und Clown (Parterre, Acrobat, and Clown), 1909
Lithograph
(Städel Museum, Frankfort)

The Brücke ultimately rejected the traditional notion that lines, objects, and color were tools in the service of the artist’s representation of “reality,” believing instead that these were elements in their own right. For them, objects symbolized ideas and conveyed moods. Not just color, but vigorous line work was critical to the expression of mood. The group’s use of then-unconventional themes—nature-worship, religious ecstasy, nudity as a symbol of the freedom of the soul, exotic and primitive art—enhanced their reputation as avant-garde artists. Nature was a subject the group often tackled, but primarily as a vehicle to express an inner emotion. In their hands, reality was transformed and reduced to its unembellished essential; color became an abstraction, detached from traditional objects and associations.

All of these elements are well-illustrated in Kirchner’s lithograph above: the acrobat and clown have been reduced to a few essential and complementary curvilinear lines; and the flattened red and yellow colors, as well as the poses and accoutrements, evoke an exotic, and exciting, locale.

Albrecht Dürer, St. Anthony, 1519,
copper etching

While best known by the general public for their paintings, the Brücke artists used the woodcut and lithography media extensively. Perhaps their technical training pushed them naturally in this direction, for the print medium certainly allowed them to maintain a close relationship between art and craft in the tradition of the Jugendstil. Interestingly, a large portion of Brücke woodcuts is devoted to advertising the group—cards, posters, and catalogues—belying this connection to the technical, or graphic, arts. The e German Renaissance masters Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer were hugely influential on the Brücke and the group was deliberate in its attempt to revive this venerable German tradition.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Bäume im Winter (Trees in Winter), 1905
Woodcut, 11.8×16 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

Like the Impressionists, the Brücke members were smitten by Japanese woodcuts—the Japanese emphasis on line and flat color, as well as oblique compositional angles in their work fit in naturally with their aesthetic beliefs. Nowhere is the the Japanese influence more acutely demonstrated in the collection it seems than in Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut above. He has pared down the scene to such an extreme that all color and embellishment has been banished. What remains is the essence of winter, brilliantly evocative in its simplicity.

Wider Connections

Spaightwood Galleries
Charles Harrison et al. —Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction

Venetian Red in Berlin: Ethnological Arts from Azerbaijan

Posted in Central Asia, Embroidery, Liz Hager, Textiles, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet, 19th century, silk, metallic thread

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet (detail)

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, and social structure of the ethnic, racial and national divisions of humanity. Simply put, ethnologists interpret the output—whether language, artifacts, social customs—of various families of man.  By the mid-19th century, Europeans were captivated by the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, both ancient and contemporary. So much so, that the term “Orientalist” was coined to describe the people who studied these cultures.

Though perhaps not as well-known as their English counterparts, German “Orientalists,” such as  Albert van Le Coq and his contemporaries were actively digging in the Sahara, the Levant and Chinese Turkistan. Like the British, they ultimately “liberated”  huge caches of artifacts from their resting places with the result that an exceptionally good collection of ethnologic art resides in Berlin.

For anyone with an interest in the tribal arts, a visit to the Ethnologisches Museum is a compulsory stop. Founded in 1873, the composite Museum (several separate collections have been merged under one roof) boasts over 500,000 artifacts, representing peoples from every continent, including North America, although only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time. Still, the serious student could spend hours, if not days, properly absorbing it all.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that (for now) the Museum is located in Dahlem, an idyllic spot southwest of the city center, which has retained its leafy village origins, despite being within city limits. Or that Die Brücke, the Museum of the German Expressionist movement, is a short walk up the road.

Although on a pilgrimage specifically to see the Kizil Cave frescos, I nonetheless wound up spending much additional time (though not nearly enough) in the comprehensive Oceanic collection and a temporary exhibit—”Azerbaijan—Land of Fires.” Apparently the first of its kind in Europe, this exhibition features 5,000 years of Azeri ethnographic arts; it encompasses not only household and decorative items, but fine arts.

The nation state of Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Beginning in the 6th century the Turkic tribes, migrating in vast numbers from the Mongolian steppe, overpowered local populations throughout Central Asia. Azerbaijan was no exception. The term “Azerbaijan” refers to the dominant Turkic tribe in the region, but derives from a root word—Azer—”fire keeper,” because the local population were fire worshippers.  By the early 20th century observers in the capital, Baku, noted the effects of the ever present smoke from fires pluming out of the city’s numerous oil derricks.

The tribal arts of Azerbaijan generally reflect either Iranian or Turkic traditions, although some Russian traditions were absorbed when the country came under Soviet control in the early 20th century. In the case of textiles, like other Turkic peoples, Azeris use embroidery to decorate many household objects—cushions, covers, wall panels, details of clothing, purses, comb cases, etc. Typically artisans embroidered intricate geometric or fanciful floral and fauna motifs on cotton or velvet using “chain” or “satin” stich techniques in silk or metallic threads. In the above detail, the chain stitching is particularly evident.  The wide use of spangles tends to differentiate Azeri embroideries from others, although this aspect is not well demonstrated by the example above.

Embroidery Craftsmen, Azerbaijan—Yelizavetpol Province, late 19th century
(Photo courtesy Russian Museum of Ethnography)

Wider Connections

Berlin Ethnographisches Museum
Azerbaijan State Museum
Azerbaijan History
More embroideries
Tom Reiss—The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the absolutely fascinating story of Essad Bey, a Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince.

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